The Nomad Hawk stalled in open ocean water with her sails crossed against each other. Araceli peered at the distant island chain through her captain’s scope from the side of the deck, her broad hip leaning on the side rail for support. She heard a gull cry in the distance, a sure sign of land.
Somewhere around here was their crossing point, a little shortcut through the sandbars that would cut over a month off of sailing time into Nassau. With their hold full of sugar to sell, every day they saved meant more money in the pockets of their crew.
And a pirate ship was nothing without her crew.
Araceli scanned the islands, noting those with droopy palm trees and those without. The sun broiled everything, leaving wavy lines of heat in Araceli’s view. It warped the wood in the Hawk, giving her a scent that stuck in the nose, a smell almost sweet when it wasn’t overrun by the salt of the ocean.
Ah, there! Captain Kyros’s navigation was pin-point accurate, as usual. Despite thousands of nautical miles, he’d brought them exactly where they needed to be. Which meant Javier owed her three shilling. Again.
He’d seen the captain’s maps and notes with his own eyes, but couldn’t bring himself to believe in the power of mathematics, a pity Araceli was not above exploiting.
Captain Kyros had learned his numbers young, a skill Araceli knew was necessary, but still struggled with. Addition and subtraction she could handle. But the long division was complex and she couldn’t quite grasp the reasoning of angles and degrees. All were necessary for navigation, much of which Captain Kyros did in his head.
She still had much to learn from him.
Araceli collapsed the scope and addressed the crew, ”Stay crossed here, boys. Take a break.”
The on-deck crew counted less than ten, with the wind so steady here. The men broke from their posts to disappear belowdecks and complain about the heat.
Cristoph, one of their newer recruits, set his hand against his brow and frowned at the island smudges in the distance. He was a full head and a half shorter than Araceli. ”Don’t look no different than any other spot, Quartermaster.”
Araceli liked this one. He was respectful of her rank despite her gender and color. He’d worked hard so far. Earned his half share sure enough. Unlike some other crew members, he didn’t need a reminder that she’d been voted into her position for a reason.
”That’s the trick, innit?” she said. ”When the tide comes up, we’ll float right over that sandbar there and be on our way.”
”But how’d you know it?” He looked at her, eyes curious. Eager to learn. He’d go far if he kept that attitude.
Araceli shrugged one shoulder as she stepped down to the main deck. ”You’d have to ask the captain. He’s known about this spot before I came aboard.”
Cristoph scuttled after her. He tidied lines as they went, coiling them under their belaying pins. The Hawk never looked so dressed as when Cristoph ran around.
Araceli left him to it, heading belowdecks to report in with the captain. The Nomad Hawk held only four decks, her top, a single gundeck, her crew deck below that, and the hold full of barraled sugar. She was a shallow-hulled boat, with a keel only the depth of another two decks, and as loaded as she was with goods, her waterline nearly met the hold.
It was risky business running so much sugar. Any leaks could ruin an entire barrel, and damage to the ship might destroy their entire haul. No one would buy wet sugar. The Hawk might have been flying friendly flags, but she was a boat full of pirates looking to get away without paying England her taxes.
Yet another reason to cut their voyage as short as possible.
The crew deck: the men lived here, and the space held its own eclectic organisation. Crates and bags of personal items balanced among the scent of unwashed working men. Above, hung neatly packed rows of angled hammocks, some stuffed with wool blankets. Trinkets and personality decorated every latch. The sail stitchers excelled in embroidery had been adding colorful embellishment to their grey blankets and pants in spare time. Those on deck forfeited space to those below and the territory lines shifted with every tide. It was a place constantly changing, but as long as the center isle remained clear, the Captain let the men handle their own affairs.
Araceli knocked twice on the captain’s cabin door at the back of the crew deck. She’d never met a man like Kyros, and probably wouldn’t willingly sail under anyone else. He ran his ship in the traditional manner: with majority votes and open debate. He allowed every voice to be heard, even when he disagreed with them, because he was open to the idea of being wrong. He wasn’t afraid to showing such a weakness to his crew. If Araceli governed in the same manner she never would have made quartermaster. A free black woman didn’t have any weaknesses aboard a vessel filled with white men.
”Enter,” Kyros said through the door.
Araceli entered. Kyros stood behind a small table mounted to the deck in the center of his room. His bed–with a real down mattress–off to the right looked like the remains of a hurricane. By contrast, his desk and shelves to the left were meticulously organized. Full of books, maps, and scattered with brick-a-brack they’d collected or traded over the years. Kyros himself only stood to Araceli’s shoulder, his head a mess of blonde chopped roughly with his own knife, but his energy was as big as anyone. He could fill a room with his own excitement and be perfectly content.
”We’ve arrived,” Araceli reported. ”Perhaps two hours before the tide lets us cross the berms.”
”Excellent.” At this news, Kyros pulled a map from a neat stack on the edge of his desk and flicked it open. He measured a distance, marked it with time and date, then rolled the parchment back up. ”The wind is with us all the way in to Nassau, so I expect to make good time once we cross to the Gulf. You and the men can take some shore leave, yeah?” He glanced up at her, eyes striking and sharp.
”The men would appreciate it,” she confirmed.
His gaze softened. ”Yes, and so would you.”
”Of course, Captain.”
”Kyros,” he said, looking down again at his paperwork. ”My name is Kyros, not Captain. What is it going to take to loosen you up?”
The question was largely rhetorical and a long-standing point between them. Araceli was respectful of titles and position by more than habit. For a free black woman, it was survival. But Kyros asked for familiarity from everyone when they stood in his cabin, and he could give Araceli a run for stubbornness when he put his mind to it. So a stalemate: Araceli called him captain, Kyros asked her not to, and nothing changed.
”Ok, get the men ready for crossing,” he said. ”Remind them not to harass the sprites. I’ll take the helm in two hours.”
”Kyros,” he grumbled quietly as she closed the door.
With the wind at her back, and men on the sweeps, the Nomad Hawk could hit nearly nine knots as she flew over the water. That wasn’t necessary to cross the sand and coral berms at high tide, but Araceli wondered if that wasn’t the smarter way to go.
The Hawk rocked gently in the afternoon water. Araceli stood at the bow, one hand on a tight line, as she leaned over the railing. She searched the bright water for rocks and corals that might impede the ship, but it wasn’t the sand that truly bothered her. It was the water.
Despite the light breeze, there was no chop here on the water in the little bay between islands. As the Hawk passed over the first sandbar, her wake quieted, then stopped splashing altogether. Araceli would have thought them dead in the water except that the island’s trees continued to pass in unnatural silence.
The breeze died. Water stopped lapping at the side of the boat. The Hawk only moved thanks to her momentum.
And down in the water, Araceli saw the sprites. They lived here in the hundreds of thousands, small little water-bodied creatures with large, luminescent eyes and strange, sharp teeth. They swam over and through each other, boiling up against the walls of the Hawk and splashing back. If Araceli focused, she could almost hear their high-pitched, scrambled voices.
She shuddered just as Christoph came running across the deck.
”Quartermaster, what are those things down there?”
”Captain Kyros calls them water sprites. Keep your hands to yourself and they won’t bother you.” Araceli put a warning arm up as Christoph leaned over the rail. ”They are simple beasts, but vicious. Like the piranha.”
”They are chewing at the boat down below!”
Araceli straightened. ”Show me. Now.”
Christoph ran for the ladder that would take them below decks, Araceli hot on his heels. Her boots thumped heavily behind him and she felt her chest tighten with anxiety. A breach in the hold was their worst nightmare.
Gun deck, crew deck, Araceli landed hard on the deck of the hold and paused to listen. There were few men down here, only a handful like Christoph who hadn’t earned the privilege of sailing top deck or needed a reminder that the open air was not a right for all pirates. Her arrival had silenced them all and Araceli scanned the hold carefully.
Then she heard it, just a soft scrape at first, like the sound of a bone knife on hide. It moved around the hull, first fore, then aft, grinding gently against the grain.
Araceli crept to the closest wall and placed her palm against the wood. She could feel the scrape vibrate right into her fingers.
”What on earth…?” She whispered.
It had to be sprites, but what exactly was going on here? Were they trying to eat the boat? The last time she’d sailed through this bay–and the first time she’d seen the sprites for herself–they paid the ship no mind. The bay had boiled with their agitation, but the Hawk had passed easily through the water and was gone again.
Something was different this time.
Araceli spun away from the hull and took the ladder two steps at a time. She didn’t know enough about these creatures to make a decision, but the captain needed to know something was brewing.
He must have felt the same, because Araceli found him half way down the crew deck ladder shouting at Bram, the Hawk’s bosun and lore master. ”They’re all riled up, I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Araceli cut off anything Bram was about to say, ”Problem in the hold, Captain!”
A sailor shouted from below, ”Breach!” His voice grew closer as he reached the stairs. ”Hull breach in the hold!”
No. Every hand on the crew deck stilled at the words, then rushed simultaneously into action. Taking on water meant a number of things: the goods in the hold were at risk, the boat could list or sink, and her path through the bay would stop entirely. Araceli and Kyros ran to the hold, sliding down the stairs on their arms. Araceli’s boots splashed into a puddle that hadn’t been there only moments ago.
They found a sailor on the starboard side pressing a plank of wood hard against the hull. Water sprayed in every direction despite, this, soaking the sailor and pooling below him. Araceli braced her shoulder in beside him and together they cut off the flow. She pointed across the hold and Kyros ran to support another breach.
Araceli recognized Javier’s voice at the stairs. The coxswain landed on the hold deck with a thump and he was followed by several men.
”Over here, Javier. We’ve got two holes to patch, get Theo…”
The board Araceli leaned into shifted, and water spurted suddenly through. She adjusted the plank and reapplied her strength, mentally spinning through the details of their situation. Yes, the hold was as full as the Hawk could carry, but the waterline should have been lower than this, down at the ankles, maybe. And the force of this breach made no sense. A hole in the hull leaked less at the top than it did down below, but Araceli had to brace her boot against a barrel and apply leverage to help keep the board in place.
Were the sprites causing this intense water pressure?
Theo suddenly arrived with several lengths of board. He was a big man, his shoulders matched Araceli’s, so when he wedged a timber piece against their board and braced it with a few choicely hammered blocks, it was a stop that held firm.
Araceli clapped his shoulder in thanks and sent the sailor helping her up to the top deck where she heard men running fore and aft to seal the holes from the outside.
Something pinched Araceli’s foot as she canvased the hold and she kicked at it automatically. She found Kyros braced against a leaking board, both feet pressed against the hull as he pushed back against a barrel of sugar. Araceli put her shoulder into the board and relieved him.
”What is going on?”
”Haven’t a clue,” he said. ”But according to Javier, the water outside is flowing up the hull and into the holes.”
”They are above the waterline.”
A sudden pulse lifted Araceli and the board she braced off the side of the hull. Water sprayed hard against the board, deflected in every direction, until Theo’s heavy shoulder rammed the board back into place.
Water splashed against Araceli’s boots. The hold retained nearly a foot of water now and they’d need to start bailing soon if the Hawk was going to stay afloat.
Kyros flinched hard and jumped up onto a barrel. ”Ow, shit. What was that?” He stared down at the water.
Araceli saw nothing. Then all at once, the water blinked and bright teeth flashed against her boots. Araceli kicked the sprite before it could chomp her, then stomped on the next one before it could get any ideas.
As it they’d been waiting to be noticed, the mass of water collected in the hold divided into its constituent sprites, and they each swam after a different sailor.
”What the hell?”
Boots stomped, crashed, and scraped across the hull. Sailors jumped up on barrels and ran back up the ladder to get away. Araceli kicked a sprite hard against the side of a barrel and it splashed, but her boot put a hole in the wood and pristine white sugar poured into the water.
In a rush, sprites all over the deck converged on the broken barrel until it was surrounded by a bubble of water. The flow of sugar stopped, and for a moment nothing happened. Then slowly, the water bubble moved inside the barrel, consuming sugar as it went.
There was a brief moment of silence. The hold was secure, the foot of water around their boots was gone, and the sprites had packed themselves away into a container.
”Grab it,” Kyros hissed. ”We’ll throw it overboard.”
Araceli easily shouldered the barrel and made for the stairs. She didn’t make it four steps before the bands on the container snapped, the wood splintered in every direction, and water drenched Araceli from head to toe.
Sprites nipped at her as they fell and she smacked them away.
”It’s the sugar,” she said. ”They want the sugar.”
”Then let’s give them some. Grab a barrel, Theo, you too.”
Kyros shouted his men into order, pairing them up to haul barrel after barrel up to the top deck. Araceli lead them with a barrel over her shoulder to the starboard side, where she cracked the seal on her container, then threw it overboard.
Water immediately boiled over the barrel–sprites fighting sprites for the sugar inside.
Araceli pointed they crew around the deck. ”Crack the top and throw one off every side!”
Barrels chucked with prejudice landed in the water one after another.
”It’s working,” Kyros shouted as he came to the top deck. ”The sprites are leaving the hold.” He pointed at the closest sailor. ”Find Javier and tell him to put men on the sweeps.”
Araceli organized the sugar barrels as they came up, unwilling to gamble on the sprites having filled their bellies with just the first four. By the time the Hawk lurched forward on her oars, the bay was littered with half-empty sugar barrels that rocked gently in sprite-generated waves.
Araceli had never been so glad to see a sand berm in her life. From the bow she guided Kyros between the islands and the oars surged them all out of the bay and back into open water. Only when the wind picked them up did Araceli’s shoulders fall with relief.
She looked back at Kyros from across the deck and shook her head. He shrugged in return. Such was life under his command. It was true that she’d never sail under anyone else, but it was also true that Araceli had never seen the kinds of preternatural things she’d encountered on this boat. Either the Hawk or Kyros himself attracted with strangest sorts of creatures.
Araceli looked out to the horizon off the bow of the Hawk. Out there was Nassau, and with it, a profit for the sugar left in their hold. A gull cried behind them, wheeling in the air above the islands.